CompanyEarth Conscious Workshop at Smule

Earth Conscious Workshop at Smule

At Smule, we organize a brown bag lunch/seminar every month to enrich and enhance our collective awesomeness. Sometimes we have team members share their unique talents and other times we have guests visit. Since October 2012 we have had a tea ceremony, a photoshop tutorial, a seminar on all things bicycles, a ukulele workshop (turns out I’m a terrible ukulele player), a juggling workshop, a professional cycling workshop led by Matt Johnson (President of the pro cycling team Garmin/Sharp) and an epic keyboard workshop with Jordan Rudess of the progressive metal band Dream Theater. This past Friday, we had an Earth Conscious Workshop led by Heidi from Recology who led an awesome presentation about the importance of recycling.

Heidi gave us the low-down on everything recycling/composting/landfills and held a Q&A after her presentation. The amount of interesting information shared during her visit was mind-blowing. Here are some highlights I took away from the workshop:

  • Diversion rate is a measure of how much material is diverted from landfill disposal to recycling/composting, expressed as a percentage of the material diverted from the landfill. It wasn’t surprising that San Francisco boasts the highest diversion rate of major US cities – diverting roughly 80% of its waste, and on track to become a zero-waste city (i.e. 100% diversion rate) by 2020! Compared to NYC, another big city with a ridiculous real estate market, this PDF shows the diversion rate in October 2012 was a meager 12.1%! By 2020, when San Francisco hopes to be a zero-waste city, NYC hopes to hit a 25% diversion rate.
  • Unfortunately, there are no recycling standards so the exact specifics vary among cities, but the general rule for recycling vs composting vs landfill: plastics, glass, metals (includes aluminum-based stuff like cans/foil) and paper go to recycling; food and anything formerly living go to composting; and the rest goes to the landfill. If you have something that is a mixture of different materials, like a can of Pringles (paper on the outside, metal lining on the inside) or a packaging envelope from Amazon (paper on the outside, plastic bubble wrap on the inside), these need to be thrown in the waste bin because separating out the components is too difficult.
  • Although items made of multiple materials are not recyclable, what about something like paper lined with plastic wax that you normally get at a deli? The general rule of thumb for recycling paper is the rip test – if you can rip a paper item easily and no plastic film is visible along the tear, it can be composted!!
  • At Smule, we have disposable utensils that are made from plants and biodegradable. One would think that this means it should go in the compost bin since it was made from formerly living things – plants. Unfortunately, made from plants and biodegradable can mean only a percentage of the utensil is actually made from plants/biodegradable, which means that these utensils can actually not be composted. Even worse, since they may be a combination of living material and plastic, recycling them is also not recommended (mixture of different materials) so these seemingly environmentally-friendly biodegradable utensils need to go in the landfill bin! Only utensils marked as compostable are actually compostable!
  • The “formerly living” description for items that should be composted invited questions about dead pets…and dead bodies. During the compost process, compostable material is heated to temperatures high enough to destroy any pathogens, but Heidi recommended you just throw dead pets in the waste bin with no comment on dead bodies, so we assume that means they are compostable! 😉
  • When recycling plastics, most people look for the triangular chasing arrow symbol. This triangle contains a number in the center that ranges from 1 to 7, but in San Francisco, you can ignore the number and just recycle all rigid plastics. Rigid plastics are plastic items that can maintain their form. For example, a container with your takeout food might be a bit flimsy but it will hopefully not break its form when you press on it, whereas a non-rigid plastic bag or saran wrap changes its form easily under pressure. Non-rigid plastics that are mistakenly recycled can actually cause issues at recycling plants! Non-rigid plastics cause jams in the machinery sorting recycled materials causing the entire processing line to be shut down, requiring manually removing the offending items! For items like plastic bags, you should reuse them locally instead of just throwing them into the landfill bin. Try reusing them when going grocery shopping or use them to collect pet waste. Some grocery stores also collect plastic bags and bundle them up for separate recycling.
  • Paper and plastic items are recycled in the same containers in San Francisco (single-stream recycling). Plastic containers that are dirty should be recycled, but items should as clean as possible because if organic matter gets on paper, mold can form and that mold breaks down the fibers in paper reducing the quality of the paper being recycled! There is a little paper recycling tip that does help here – paper items that are not very thick like napkins and paper plates don’t need to be recycled because the fibers in these items are already so thin. Given paper comes from a living thing and what is on your plate or napkin is also compostable, you can conveniently just put these items in a compost bin!
  • If dirty plastic containers can ruin recycled paper, why doesn’t San Francisco ditch single-stream recycling – where all recyclable items are put in one container by residents and sorted at recycling facilities – and just go for multi-stream recycling where items are sorted by residents? Recology tried this, but found that less people were recycling because of the increased effort required for multi-stream recycling.

Everyone really enjoyed Heidi’s presentation and the impact of her visit was seen immediately. As we packed up for the weekend, marketing extraordinaire Turner Kirk snapped this photo and noted our recycling bin was overflowing, the compost bin was nearly full, and there was very little in the landfill bin.


An empty landfill bin is a happy landfill bin!

Up next in our workshop series is a beer-tasting workshop led by our very own beer connoisseurs Ryan and Nick! Check out Smule on Twitter and Facebook for more awesomeness. If you have any questions about Smule, our workshop series, or my newfound appreciation for recycling feel free to send me a tweet!